Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Impossible

With a film like The Impossible, which documents the horrific tsunami that destroyed Southeast Asia in 2004 seen through the prism of one family, one really knows what to expect.  The emotional beats, built-in sensitivity to ones suffering, there's a certain formula; it's all in the execution.  With Spanish director Juan Antonia Bayona at the helm, who crafted the elegant thriller The Orphanage (2008), he begins his film with a bristling tension.  We know what will happen, but stages nice sequences of a family in harmony-- in this a real family vacationing in Thailand for Christmas holiday.  There's a playful ordinariness in young children frolicking, eager excitement for Christmas gifts and family swim sessions.  Of course, and just as the musical cues will remind us, a tragedy is about to strike.  Wisps of wind, birds fleeing, a red ball stopped in mid play.  Bayona stages the disaster in a uncommonly humane way, seen through the eyes of innocents unaware of whats about to happen, and sadly aware there's little they can do.  There's an immediate indictment of man versus nature eeriness that would spook anyone with it's grounded sense of reality.

The sequence itself is a grandiose display of technical precision.  Tightly shot, exactly executed and bravura in craftsmanship.  There's a tinge of on-ones-seat nerves, as one might expect from the fun but scary disaster films of yore, but the awareness that this, in fact, true, quells movie-going excitement, and subdues it to utmost emotion.  As the water covers the ocean side resort that the well off Bennett family is staying at, there's an immediate ripe undercurrent of immediate sadness.  That Bayona stages the disaster with such a no-nonsense immediacy, barely taking time for the viewer to grasp whats happening is a triumph; it's just a shame that him and his team couldn't sustain it, instead going the easier way out, harkening and bludgeoning his audience with assaults of suffering without the same sense of control.  But as a beginning, The Impossible succeeds with long stretches, with unsentimental displays of nearly wordless, almost pure cinema.  In the aftermath, Maria (Naomi Watts) is dragged down the ocean current, separated from her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and three sons.  Bayona assaults Maria with nature's affect in a sequence that's harrowing and nearly impossible to watch.  Watts surely will be commended for the pure physicality of her performance as her Maria is bruised and ambushed.

When she meets her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), there's a relief and a respite as the film ventures from disaster movie to survival film.  It's this stage of the film where Bayona loses sight of the reality he so authoritatively presented during the storm.  The emotional stakes are high, and certainly tears will continue to be shed; it's just that kind of movie, but there's a more pronounced bit of manipulation at hand, one that can't easily be forgotten, even in the course of crying ones eyes out.  Holland, however, gives a marvelous performance a young child, afraid, but forced to take on the role of leader and plays his scenes with a naturalistic dignity and preternatural command.  Towards the center of the film, he takes charge of the sequence where he, as a lucky victim not too terribly injured, becomes a surrogate to helping bring other victims together in a nearby hospital.  The setup is mawkish enough for anyone to easily call uncle, but Holland and the filmmakers, perhaps seemingly aware, underplay the grandness of it.  It's through this sense of command that plots Holland as the only actor to really ever break out of pure sad survivalist role in the film.  Watts and McGregor are certainly charismatic actors and do good work, but under the minimalist script by Sergio Sanchez, neither are given too much of interior life, outside of the keep moving sense of struggle.

There's a harrowing and graceful tribute to the victims of 2004 tsunami tragedy, and thankfully the film supersedes movie-of-the-week tackiness, but there's still a nagging sense that The Impossible might have soared without such an easily-connect-the-dots the conclusion.  This is a real story, and based on a real family's tragedy, and since the trailer itself gives the whole thing away anyway, there's nary a spoiler on that front.  There is something to be said, however, for the trite dialogue, unsubtle gestures of suffering all in service for entertainment.  What starts as a horror film swiftly turns into a somewhat hokey survival fetish film, masquerading as humane drama.  Either as a good thing or bad, it becomes all too apparent Bayona was more interested in former.  B-

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